12 May, 2016
After the attack on an Armenian MP in the Turkish parliament, the Istanbul Human Rights Association has urged that action be taken against any similar attacks, writes Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian
After videos on social media went viral the past weeks showing fisticuffs breaking out between Turkish parliamentarians as they fought over a proposal to lift immunity from prosecution, Istanbul's Human Rights Association's Committee Against Racism and Discrimination has complained to the speaker of the assembly demanding that such actions not be repeated.
During the fighting MP Garo Paylan representing the Turkish-Armenian community and a member of the Kurdish HDP Party was attacked. Paylan has been the target in recent weeks of verbal and physical attacks by members of the ruling Turkish AKP Party as a result of his free expression of his views on democracy, tolerance and human rights.
The letter, addressed to Ismail Kahraman, said that "this act of racism against Garo Paylan under the roof of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey violates international conventions signed by the Turkish state that prohibit racism and discrimination."
"Article 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights prohibits discrimination in no uncertain terms. The Republic of Turkey has also signed the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993 that obligates signatory states to take precautions against racism."
"The United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Turkey has also consented to adopt, dictates the signatory states' obligations regarding the prohibition, investigation, punishment, denunciation and compensation of the victims of racist acts," the letter said.
The "AKP MPs yelled 'Armenian bastard' and 'ASALA's child' at Paylan, which is the very definition of racism," Turkish human rights activist Ayse Gunaysu told Al-Ahram Weekly. "In order to continue its denial of the Armenian Genocide the Turkish establishment is keeping public hatred against the Armenians alive and at times even escalating it," she added.
Genocide denial, she said, was "like an atmosphere - a climate that embraces the lives, of victims and perpetrators alike." She added that she used the word victims, "because Armenians living in Turkey have no alternative but to 'tolerate' denialism. It becomes a way of life. Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, any crisis in the country fuels racism against Armenians.
In the construction of Turkish identity, Armenians are systematically turned into a collective enemy that binds the Turkish nation together," Gunaysu said.
Just days before Armenian Genocide Commemoration Day during a session of parliament Paylan condemned the murders and suggested forming a committee to investigate the killings of Armenian intellectuals in 1915. In his address, he read out the names and displayed the photographs of those who had been killed, arrested or exiled during the genocide.
He also condemned the fact that places in Turkey are named after the organisers and perpetrators of the Genocide. "Can you imagine going to Germany and walking down an avenue named after Hitler," Paylan asked, ending his speech with the words "may God bless their souls" in the Armenian language.
Paylan, born in Istanbul in 1972, was elected to the Turkish parliament in June 2015 on the pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP) list. He is an activist who struggles for Armenian and minority rights, and he has also supported the rights of Turkey's Kurds. The AKP has one Armenian MP, Markar Esayan, as does the CHP (Republican People's Party), Selina Ozuzun Dogan, both of whom were elected last year.
Although Armenians have distanced themselves from the Turkish state's ongoing war against the Kurds, the security forces' hostility towards the Armenians is still obvious. "They are supposed to guarantee the rule of law. In reality, they violate all the laws - national and international," Gunaysu commented.
The Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) has raised its voice in support of Paylan. On 5 May, US State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner answered a question from ANCA on Paylan's safety by saying that though he did not have details of the case, a "member of any political party who is being harassed or beaten or detained in any way would be of concern to us." The question came as ANCA has called upon US Ambassador to Turkey John Bass, in an open letter, to publicly voice official US concern regarding the safety of Paylan.
"We are troubled by Toner's assertion that he was unaware of the violence and threats against Garo Paylan," executive director of ANCA Aram Hamparian told the Weekly, as it had been the subject of major media coverage.
"Toner has been asked about it during a press briefing. There's no excuse for further silence, particularly in the light of the US government's shameful record of inaction regarding the threats against the life of [Turkish Armenian journalist] Hrant Dink in the past," Hamparian asserted.
ANCA has set up a petition for people to call on the US State Department and the international human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to raise their voices in defence of Paylan.
"I share the urgent concerns voiced in this letter and call upon each of you to take a public stand against those who would silence Paylan," the petition read.
However, Gunaysu said that while "Armenian diaspora organisations are condemning Turkey's violations, such petitions may have an adverse effect as Paylan could be associated with the ARF [Armenian Revolutionary Federation] Party and other hate figures in Turkey, and consequently the hostility against him could rise even though the ANCA has every right to draw attention to the situation."
"As for the Turkish public, regrettably human rights organisations' efforts attract little attention, because the mainstream media never covers such efforts and they remain unknown."
Although nine years have now passed since the assassination of Dink in the streets of Istanbul, last week's fighting in the Turkish parliament has raised fears that Paylan could face a similar fate, particularly as he has vowed to carry on Dink's work.
"Prior to the political assassination of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007, far too few voices were raised in his defence.
Despite all the warning signs and many public appeals the US government did not utter a single official word about the serious threats to his life. It was only after Dink's murder that it found its voice, condemning a murder it had done little to prevent. Let us draw the right lessons from this shameful record and act now before it is too late," concluded the ANCA petition.
The Turkish government also has an obligation to protect Paylan as a Turkish citizen. "It should do everything possible to guarantee his safety. But it is not in its tradition to do so. Only international pressure can have an influence on what is going on in Turkey," Gunaysu told the Weekly.
Last week prominent Turkish journalist Can Dündar, editor of the newspaper Cumhuriyet, was sentenced to more than five years in prison after surviving an attack by a gunman who had attempted to assassinate him outside a courthouse in Istanbul.
"Dündar, escaped an assassination attempt, but remember that Dink and Sevag Şahin Balıkçı, who fell victim during his military service in 2011, were murdered. There are also dozens of Kurdish journalists in jail now, and others who were killed during the army's operations in Kurdish towns and districts. There is a lot of interest in Dündar's case, but very little in the persecution of the Kurdish journalists," Gunaysu said.
The letter addressed to the speaker of the Turkish parliament also said that "you partake in these crimes by excluding this racial targeting from your agenda, not denouncing it, not imposing sanctions, and not declaring that you prohibit such acts. You have first responsibility for Paylan's security since you are the head of the legislature in which he has been targeted. You are responsible before the world and before history."
The Istanbul Human Rights Association invited the speaker of the parliament to fulfill his responsibility, denounce the acts against Paylan, and declare that he was against racism and would apply sanctions against those committing racist assaults under the roof of the parliament.
Turkish denialism is still widespread among the wider Turkish population. "The vast majority believe that what the state says is true. So there is deep-rooted racism, at times open and aggressive, at times covert and subtle, against the Armenians and other non-Muslim groups," Gunaysu said, adding that this was nevertheless the first time that such hatred had been displayed in parliament.
"What is particularly shocking is that no investigation has been announced of this racist attack, and no one has been called to account for it," Ayse Gunaysu, the Turkish human rights activist and member of the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination, concluded.